Typewriter-3My students treat grammar as an exotic species of butterfly to be frozen and pinned on the page. They can label the type of sentence and all the bits and pieces with studied precision, fretting the difference between verb or verbal, or degrees of adjective and adverb.

Thirteen-year-olds shouldn’t know these things, typically, but it appeals to those needing their English to conform to rules and make sense 100% of the time, even to the point of plotting its exceptions to the 13th rule of comma usage. At an earlier stage of life when the brain absorbs new languages with ease, and rote memorization is its default setting, this made sense.

But as their brains gear up for the last great growth spurt, when the frontal lobe erects a few billion new neurons, the whole contraption subtly shifts toward analysis and critical thinking. Abstraction rules. Memorization gradually becomes harder, new languages grow more slippery to grasp. The drill, drill, drill of grammar acquisition becomes outmoded, repetitive, dull.

So today, I shocked my students into a new reality. I cheerfully gave them a diagnostic quiz I knew would make them struggle. There’s no grade — other than a single class-participation point for completing it. The low stakes meant there’d be nothing to cry over when faced with material that looked oh-so-familiar, but which didn’t conform to expected notions of identify, label, define. Identify, label, define.

The butterflies vanished, in favor of a giant, subterranean ant colony of messy destruction and rebuilding, of language decay and rebirth, of whole forests of invention that rest on scurrying little workers doing their jobs unseen. That’s the true nature of English mechanics — grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax, style, capitalization. A thousand, thousand bits and pieces all swarming into shape, then collapsing, moving elsewhere, starting over.

Students had to combine some sentences and expand others, with no direction other than “pick the best one.” What is best? The ants tramp along in one direction, then flow to another. Which way feels right? Further along, students sorted out the best expression of a simple idea, then the simplest expression of a complex idea. What are they building? How does it all fit together?

Grades, as I expected, plummeted. I scored the quiz even though it doesn’t count toward their averages. Typically, I’d expect a median grade in the high-80s. Identify, label, define. The new way of digging grammar into the raw dirt of English sank that median to the mid-70s. Not bad. If it were their midterm, I could justify the scores to my admin, though likely not to parents. They think an A is a beautiful thing. It should flutter into view and stay there.

That’s not how it works, of course. Butterflies don’t move when they are pinned. But language is fluid, it moves, and not always gracefully, and if there is no understanding of how it’s constructed, picked apart, and rebuilt, again and again and again, then my students’ writing will similarly remain trapped in toxic stillness, caught under glass, dead.

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